'Batman Begins': Redefining the Dark Knight

Comic pro Danny Fingeroth explores how director Christopher Nolan and the vfx teams have embraced a back to basics approach on Batman Begins.

Its not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.
Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins
A new Batman descends onto movies screens. Courtesy of Double Negative. All images © 2005 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

A new Batman descends onto movies screens. Courtesy of Double Negative. All images © 2005 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

With those words, Bruce Wayne defines just what makes Batman different from Spider-Man, Superman and from you and me.

Most of us would like to think that what we do is less important than who we believe we are. Life often makes us compromise our ideals and do things we would rather not have. We tell ourselves were good people, but do things in our personal or professional lives that hurt others, even when were trying not to.

That very contradiction is what makes a character like Spider-Man so relatable. He tries hard, but messes up. Peter Parkers whole Spider-Man career is based on him believing he messed up. He didnt stop the burglar who went on to murder his beloved uncle when he could have.

But Batman, as incarnated by Christian Bale in director and co-writer Christopher Nolans epic Batman Begins (opening June 15 from Warner Bros.), does not believe that who he is underneath is important. For this driven character, Bruce Wayne is the disguise, Batman the man of action is the real person. His campaign against crime is the thing he lives for and that motivates his actions. And actions are, to him, all that counts.

This is what he says, at any rate. Of course, under the toughened exterior is a little boy even more damaged, and at an earlier age, than Peter Parker. The child Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is not unlike that other young Bruce Banner in Ang Lees exploration of superhuman childhood trauma, Hulk.

What I wanted to do, explains Nolan in the production notes, was tell the Batman story Id never seen, the one that the fans have been wanting to see the story of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.

According to Nolan: There is no one definitive account of Batmans origins, but throughout the interpretations of his character over the years, there are key events that make Batman who he is and make his story the great legend that it has come to be. There were also a lot of very interesting gaps in the mythology that we were able to interpret ourselves and bring in our own ideas of how Bruce Wayne and Batman would have evolved specifically.

Superheroes are at their core metaphors for human emotions and conflicts. The Hulk is about anger. Spider-Man is about coming to terms with responsibility. Superman is about coming from somewhere else and fitting in. And Batman has always been about anger and regret channeled as a force for justice. The current back to basics approach of so many superhero movies from the X-Men films, to the Spider-Man movies, to, now, Batman Begins (DC Comics/Warner Bros. modern foray into the pool) resonates with those primal metaphors, telling tales of pathos and passion, angst and agony, glory and victory, in a straightforward, undiluted manner. Superheroes enable us to journey into a world where powerful protectors use force in our name to, paradoxically, defend and advance a free society, while cathartically dealing with our deepest fears and highest hopes.

Thats a lot to ask of a guy in a bat-suit.

Underneath the suit, Batman is just a man trying to overcome his fears. Courtesy of The Moving Picture Co.

Underneath the suit, Batman is just a man trying to overcome his fears. Courtesy of The Moving Picture Co.

And, in theory, thats all Batman is: a regular guy who has trained himself to the peak of human perfection in body and mind. Batman comes and fights his own demons and ours (both inner and outer), and does it in the bigger-than-life manner we have come to expect of our costumed adventurer/superhero characters. And while he may not have super strength or a spider-sense, he has the most advanced technology that Wayne Industries can produce, and the most up-to-date vfx that the industry has to offer.

How this technology was used, though, is not the way you would expect it would be in a typical summer superhero blockbuster. Nolan says he wanted to present a more realistic take on his [Batmans] story than weve seen in previous incarnations of the character. I wanted to treat it with a degree of gravity and with a sense of epic scope, but set in a world that is firmly grounded in reality.

With that as his priority, Nolan had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern vfx world, and eventually saw the light. The visual effects boutiques he would use to achieve his cinematic goals included Double Negative, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) and The Moving Picture Co. (MPC).

Paul Franklin, Double Negatives visual effects supervisor, explained about his companys most ambitious project to date: Chris Nolan really wanted this film to be very much grounded in some sort of believable reality rather than existing purely inside some sort of graphic world that could only be achieved through the use of computer animation or whatever. And he always wanted to make it feel like that you might actually go to Gotham, that Gotham might be a real place, and that somebody could really do the things that Batman was doing.

It was really interesting that in Batman Begins you saw Chris basically progress through all the various stages that visual effects have been through in the last five or six years, and going from the position where he was very reluctant to use extensive digital effects work, to the point where was pretty happy for us to go away and generate something entirely digitally, because we were getting what he wanted.

The digital artist working on the cityscapes subtly transformed Chicago into Gotham City. Courtesy of Double Negative.

The digital artist working on the cityscapes subtly transformed Chicago into Gotham City. Courtesy of Double Negative.

So we moved from a position where at the outset of the film, Chris was pretty adamant that he wasnt going to have digital cityscapes, certainly not entirely digital cityscapes, in the film, to a position where at the end of post-production, where Chris is approaching his final cut of the film, where hes coming up with new ideas for shots, and were able to generate them entirely digitally, because obviously there is no opportunity to go out and shoot new material at this point.

Nolans bottom line is the story of the man inside the suit. And at its core, that story is about fear. The director, whose previous films have been Memento and Insomnia both about men pushed to the absolute edge of sanity by forces beyond their control is focused on what that emotion can do to a person and to a society. Its fascinating to me, Nolan remarks, the idea of a person who would confront his innermost fear and then attempt to become it. If Marvels Daredevil character another superhero revitalized, as Batman was in the 1980s, by writer and artist Frank Miller is the man without fear, Batman could be said to be the man with fear but who rises above it.

Nolan elaborates: In the story, young Bruces accidental discovery of the bat-filled caverns beneath Wayne Manor results in a harrowing encounter with the terrifying creatures, leaving him permanently haunted by the memory. Nolan and [co-writer David] Goyer fused this seminal experience with Bruces subsequent guilt over his parents deaths, making his decision to remold himself in the image of a creature that wracks him with such fear and anxiety all the more remarkable and resonant.

And how were those amazing, fear-inducing bat-effects achieved? According to MPCs visual effects supervisor Rudi Holzapfel, From the outset, Chris made sure, that the digital bats would look and act like real ones in his scenes.

First, when scenes were shot that would later contain bats, we had various kinds of reference bats on set; these were stuffed bats of various sizes and tones. Each time bats were to be required in those scenes, Chris would take it on himself to walk through the set with these bats on a stick and film the references with the same stock as the scene. This gave us perfect references of how real bats would look in these environments.

Vfx artists used footage of real Egyptian fruit bats to create the winged creatures of the night for Batman Begins. Courtesy of The Moving Picture Co.

Vfx artists used footage of real Egyptian fruit bats to create the winged creatures of the night for Batman Begins. Courtesy of The Moving Picture Co.

Second, Chris and production vfx supervisors Janek Sirrs and Dan Glass shot a plethora of reference footage of real Egyptian fruit bats. For this they went on a bluescreen stage and also a dark, side-lit set, not unlike the well and cave the digital bats would later on end up in. This would provide us with a basic library of wing movement and flight patterns, as well as specific actions during take-off and landing that was later used as reference for the basis of the bat animation.

So in script and design, the movie is about how we face and use our fears. Or dont. And the metaphor is propelled forward by the use of countless visual effects. But Nolans prime directive was always that the effects not call attention to themselves, and that you should always sense that, like Batman with his abilities, the filmmakers simply pushed reality-recording film technology to the limit.

Rising Sun Pictures was the effects house responsible for maintaining the illusion of reality in the scenes involving the interior of Batmans ride, the Batmobile. When you look out the vehicles windows, it is RSPs use of Fast Fourier Transformations that makes you believe the car is racing through Gotham, as opposed to standing in front of a greenscreen, which it was.

As one of RSPs visual effects supervisors, Tim Crosbie (who worked closely with another vfx supervisor, Tim Baier, and with vfx producer Sara Henschke), offers: As Batman BEGINS, it makes sense not be as full of vfx as previous films. However, by achieving subtle and seamless real world images via vfx techniques, you get the vfx without it feeling like a huge vfx film. I think weve all seen a lot of films where the effects seem to come before the story.

Whether real or simulated, Batman Begins is certainly impressive to look at. From the Monastery in the Himalayas, to the vertiginous canyons of Gotham City, to Arkham Asylum and its home in Gothams Narrows, the look and feel of the film hammers home the theme of fear. Not that Batman Begins is a horror movie, but theres an edge of menace you feel lurking around every corner, even in the quieter scenes. Its a world where, if you lived in it, youd hope and pray that someone like Batman would come along to save you.

For Batman Begins, the Batmobile design is far more utilitarian than in other film or television adaptations. Courtesy of Double Negative.

For Batman Begins, the Batmobile design is far more utilitarian than in other film or television adaptations. Courtesy of Double Negative.

And then theres that Batmobile. The thing is essentially a tank. Ill go out on a limb and predict there will be quite a few toys in its image sold this holiday season. Production designer Nathan Crowley worked closely with Nolan and Goyer in Nolans garage. As Nolan and Goyer worked on the script in the directors house, they would share ideas with Crowley about how they were envisioning the vehicle. Their ideas informed Crowleys designs, and Crowleys designs contributed to important aspects of the script.

Beyond the story and visual effects, there are, of course, the characters it contains.

First and foremost is Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman. If you thought Michael Keatons Bruce Wayne was too open and emotionally vulnerable in the manner of Peter Parker, then Bale will be more your cup of tea. What Keanu Reaves is to the Matrixs Neo, Bale is to Bruce. I thought there was a certain distance to his demeanor that might have been appropriate to the character, but made it hard for me to feel his emotional plight. Bale was most engaging in the scenes where he is haggard and battered, searching the world for a way to channel his anger and pain, less so when he returns to Gotham and begins to implement strategies for battling evil. But the character, as created decades ago in the comics by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and others (and continued over the decades by Dennis ONeil, Neal Adams, and Frank Miller, to name just a few), is so strong that Bale is able to draw much out if it.

The eponymous hero of Batman Begins has a diverse array of friends and foes that help tell his story. The shining gem of them all is Michael Caine (supporting Oscar nomination you read it here) as the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. His relationship with Bales Bruce Wayne is the one where the young heir comes most alive. Caine is both straight-man and comedian, giving as well as he gets. Hes the good father that Bruce comes to depend on. Bruces real father died before they could establish an adult relationship, and Liam Neesons Ducard is stern and demanding, didactic and challenging, but not a father figure with any sympathy. If Bruce Wayne is anyones son, it is Alfreds.

While others collect comics, Bruce Wayne collects father figures, which include Michael Caines Alfred Pennyworth, Liam Neesons Henri Ducard and Morgan Freemans Lucius Fox.

While others collect comics, Bruce Wayne collects father figures, which include Michael Caines Alfred Pennyworth, Liam Neesons Henri Ducard and Morgan Freemans Lucius Fox.

Another contender for father-figure, however, is Morgan Freemans Lucius Fox. Playing Q to Bales James Bond, Fox just happens to have the right set of gizmos for Batmans campaign against crime. Or maybe Bruce Wayne is simply clever enough to adapt, for crime-fighting purposes, whatever Lucius has developed. Freemans Lucius is cool and imperturbable, another steady anchor in Bruces life.

Outstanding in the role of nervous sibling is Gary Oldmans Lieutenant Jim Gordon. With a moustache directly out of Miller and Mazzucchellis Batman: Year One comics mini-series, Oldman becomes the one good cop that Batman needs on his side in order to be most effective in cleaning up Gotham.

Echoing the movies theme of fear is the Scarecrow, Dr. Jonathan Crane, played by Cillian Murphy. With his use of toxins to induce fear and terror in his victims, hes the little kid pulling the wings off a fly writ large.

Katie Holmes plays assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes, the grown-up version of Bruces childhood best friend (a character created specifically for the movie). Unfortunately, Holmes is given the thankless task of having to state the themes. While Ducards spouting of portentous truisms works in the context of cruel-for-your-own-good movie mentors from time immemorial, when Rachel is burdened with such lines, they sound fatuous. Happily, by the films end, her dialogue is written with more subtlety, lending more dimension to the character.

A notable missing element in the film is the sense that Bruce might actually be missing and mourning a maternal figure. The film like the Star Wars movies is primarily, of course, about fathers and sons. But a boy needs his mom, too. Is there fear that a kid who might mourn and want to avenge his murdered mother would be a turn-off to audiences? Would Bruce Wayne be considered a sissy if he did that?

So how does Batman Begins stack up? Well, its a wild, fun ride and the truest live-action incarnation of the character ever done. In the ranking of superhero movies, Id say its somewhere behind the Spider-Man movies which will most likely remain the gold standard of these types of films for a good long while and on a par with the excellent X-Men movies. Everything else places well behind this group, so thats pretty good company to be in. The movie may be called Batman Begins but its a movie franchise that wont be ending for a long, long time.

Danny Fingeroth was the longtime editorial director of Marvel Comics Spider-Man line and consulted on the 1990s Fox Kids Spider-Man animated series. He has written hundreds of comics stories, and written and developed characters and scripts for animation, most recently episodes of 4Kids Ent.s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Fingeroth is also the author of Superman On the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Continuum), and puts out Write Now! Magazine, the premier publication about writing for comics and animation, through TwoMorrows Publishing. He teaches Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels and moderates seminars with Graphic Novel creators at New York University and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Fingeroth is a frequent guest on radio and television (including E! Ent. Television, the Today Show and NPRs All Things Considered), commenting on comics and on popular culture in general. His op-eds and comments on superheroes and pop culture have appeared in many newspapers and websites, including the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today and cnn.com.

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